By Giri Rajendran, Research Associate for Defence and Economics
In preparing the latest edition of the Military Balance, launched last week in London and this week in the United States, the IISS team behind the book decided to try an experiment. Since the United States and China are the world’s biggest spenders on defence, and China a distant second, we wanted to see when both countries’ defence spending might converge.
We based our projections on several hypothetical scenarios, including one in which the trend rates of defence-spending growth over the past decade in the US and China were to continue, and another in which Chinese defence-spending growth was constrained by an economic slowdown. (Looking at past examples, particularly the 1980s Latin American debt crisis, we assumed that China’s economy would start booming again by 2031.) The US budget sequester was another variable we had to factor in.
By Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Research Assistant for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
The United States needs to push North Korea straight to the top of its policy agenda, says academic Joel Wit (above), saying that Pyongyang might already possess 25 nuclear weapons and may have deployed a prototype road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Speaking at the IISS several days before Pyongyang carried out its third nuclear test on 12 February, the former State Department official and Visiting Scholar at the US–Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) said he thought the passive policy of ‘strategic patience’ during the Obama administration’s first four years had failed.
As the administration entered its second term, he suggested, the White House should take a more proactive approach to North Korea – especially given President Barack Obama’s recommitment to Asia and his outspoken advocacy on nuclear issues.
By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant editor
The US ‘reset’ towards Russia during the first Obama administration had created ‘dividends for European security’, the IISS’s new senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia told an audience in London this week – even if this positive effect was underappreciated. However, relations with Russia in Obama’s second term would be complicated by Vladimir Putin’s recent return to the presidency and Putin’s less apparent warmth towards Washington than predecessor Dmitry Medvedev.
By Chris Raggett, Assistant editor
Although foreign policy played a small role in the US presidential campaign late last year, the way Barack Obama handles Iran before 2016 could determine how the president goes down in history. So argues Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the IISS’s non-proliferation programme, speaking at a discussion meeting last week about Obama’s upcoming second term.
Over the weekend, Iran signalled it might return in late February to talks with the international community over its disputed nuclear programme. However, the country has also recently notified the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, that it will be installing new, more efficient centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. This would dramatically shorten the time it would take Tehran to ‘break-out’ and make a nuclear bomb after expelling IAEA inspectors. Fitzpatrick, who believes there is the chance that some sort of military action ‘may come into play’ in the next four years to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, has said the installation of new centrifuges would be a ‘game changer‘.
Some political commentators may scrutinise Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s words over the weekend for a glimmer of hope. They might argue that he used defiant language during his speech at Damascus Opera House on Sunday – calling his opponents ‘murderous armed criminals’ and ‘Western puppets’ – to place himself in the best possible position ahead of any negotiations.
Unfortunately, that’s too optimistic, says IISS’s Emile Hokayem in a new piece in Foreign Policy magazine. Nearly two years into the uprising in his country, Assad still believes ‘that he will prevail and that any dialogue can only occur on his terms’.
Hokayem reports meeting regime sympathisers in Beirut who believed in a ’2014 strategy’.
‘Assad’s objective was to survive militarily and hold key cities, roads, and infrastructure until then. In the meantime, the regime could at best propose an improbable multi-year process designed to keep internal and external actors distracted by hollow politics rather than the fate of Assad himself.
‘The “peace plan” laid out by Assad in his speech seems designed to do precisely that,’ Hokayem believes.
With all the high-level diplomatic visits to Moscow and accompanying news headlines, a casual observer might easily conclude that Russia holds the key to resolving the Syrian crisis, writes Samuel Charap, IISS senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia, in a New York Times op-ed. ‘But as the latest round of failed talks this weekend - this time between Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria – conclusively demonstrate, Russia will not be part of the solution on Syria.’
Charap says that some members of the international community continue to hope that Moscow can bring its influence on President Bashar al-Assad to bear on some sort of political transition. However, he points that the Kremlin has not only ‘fastidiously’ avoided joining the call for Assad to step down, but has also issued three UN Security Council vetoes during votes on Syria, and ‘bent over backward to water down the Geneva Communiqué calling for a peaceful transition of authority’.
Russia is not blind to the tragedy of the situation, but its approach to international intervention is very different from that of much of the rest of the international community, particularly the United States and the European Union. ‘Moscow does not believe the UN Security Council should be in the business of endorsing the removal of a sitting government,’ explains Charap. Indeed, it views many past US-led interventions as threatening to the stability of the international system and is not convinced that Washington’s motives in Syria are driven purely by humanitarian concerns. It even worries that giving its imprimatur to international action on Syria could potentially threaten ‘regime stability’ in Russia itself by creating a dangerous precedent that could eventually be used against it.
By John Drennan, Research Assistant, IISS-US
Russia is using military aid and basing deals to shore up its strategic position in Central Asia, ahead of NATO’s 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. A $1.1 billion military aid package to Kyrgyzstan was finalised recently, and in November Moscow announced a plan to provide $200 million in Russian assistance to upgrade Tajikistan’s air-defence system.
The Russian government has also signed two new deals trading economic assistance for basing rights in Central Asia. In October, the Tajik government agreed to extend the lease on Russia’s base in Dushanbe until 2042, in exchange for a nominal sum plus military training and better access to the Russian labour market for Tajik citizens. (Currently, almost half of Tajikistan’s GDP comes through remittances.) In September, Moscow announced a 15-year extension of its air base in Kyrgyzstan in return for $489m in debt settlement and an agreement for energy infrastructure upgrades. Kyrgyzstan’s parliament officially ratified the agreement on 13 December.
These developments strengthen Russia’s position in Central Asia at a time of great uncertainty about the future role of the United States, which has had a basing footprint in the region as part of NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan since 2001.